What it’s like to go on a Jaguar safari in Brazil

We’re barely an hour into our adventure in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland located mostly on Brazil’s western edge, when a safari guide gets a call from a fellow nearby bush: the jaguar. Two of them, a mother and a cub. We have five minutes to gather our binoculars and guts before boarding the jeep, its three-tiered seats stacked like a theater on wheels – we don’t want to miss our first sight of the predator in the area.

In fact, I actually had a wildlife fix that day: We saw a capybara at the entrance to the Ecotourism Lodge and Preserve, Cayman. Beyond the fence – there to keep tigers away – a funky, welcoming group of large rodents, like guinea pigs the size of Labradors, graze on the grass and hardly notice our arrival. (The closest I’ve been to capybaras before was behind a misty glass at the San Diego Zoo, so I naturally cried.)

Then there were pairs of sapphire macaws—a cousin of parrot staggering in size (over three feet long, beak tip to tip of tail) and cobalt blue—in the trees above the inn’s aquamarine pond. These amazing birds of paradise often fall victim to illegal bird trafficking and habitat destruction, with an estimated 10,000 “removed from nature” by the 1980s, according to the nonprofit Arara Azul (Hyacinth Macaw Institute). But Cayman, who is committed to conservation, has helped rehabilitate the species by partnering with the institute and creating an ecological sanctuary—part of the reason I’m here.

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Casa Cayman is the childhood home of owner Roberto Clapin.

Photo by Laura Danin Redman

My home away from home on my safari in May is Casa Caiman, the actual childhood home of reserve owner Roberto Clapin. His family has worked on a farm in the Pantanal since 1952, though they made their fortune in the pulp and paper industry. Clappen, now an entrepreneur and environmental expert, has fond memories of being in this sprawling terra cotta setting 10 years ago. He doesn’t remember seeing a jaguar at the time, but who would, given how isolated and rare the big cat would be. Reconstruction efforts began in earnest in 2016, but bushfires and drought continue to challenge the region’s biodiversity.

Numbers vary but the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts the total number of jaguars in the tens of thousands, making them a “near-threatened” species. More than half of jaguars are in Brazil, and over the past 10 years, the non-profit Onçafari has also partnered with Klabin and the Caiman Ecological Refuge to monitor and rehabilitate the mammals so they can live and reproduce in their natural habitats. Since 2016, three Jaguar females have given birth to 15 cubs, including the pair we are tracking.

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When you live in an urban forest—say, New York City, where wildlife is carnivorous and pulls slices of pizza into sewers—it can be annoying at first to see so many species of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles hanging around casually, so close to home. Caiman is in the same time zone as New York, a straight cut south across both hemispheres and the seasons. It takes about 11 hours to reach the wetland and three flights on progressively smaller planes – an international jet, a domestic carrier and a support plane. In comparison, an African safari for an American might require a day and a half of travel just to get to your welcome cocktail. But here I was, free of jet lag, racing a jeep along a busy cattle road to find a baby tiger.

“We don’t usually go that fast,” exclaimed our guide Raphael, his smile widening with anticipation of discovery. “Hold on to something!” Our hands on our heads to hold baseball caps in place, we move across bridges and through bushes, trying to sneak shaky videos with our cameras while getting our first glimpse of the 1.3 million acres. The first thing I noticed: the cows. Lots of cows. An important part of the Cayman Ecological Refuge is the coexistence of three activities: livestock farming, ecotourism, and conservation. So chalk-white cows live alongside jaguars – the farm loses about 1.5 to 2 percent of the herd each year, a price the mafia pays to keep the cat population growing. We know we’re close to those clever predators (the third largest in the world of big cats after tigers and lions) when we see dozens of cattle frozen in place on the side of the road, heads bobbing in the same direction as a crowd of onlookers watched the fight. There, across the path and down to the water hole, three capybaras scream bloody killing while two tigers swim nearby. Are stalking cats prey? Cool off in the afternoon sun? Both?

Our guide suggests that the two jaguars we’ve been chasing—mother and cub, likely four months old—don’t hunt, since jaguars usually ambush prey rather than paddle dogs to eat at the capybara buffet. Yet there is just something in the air, an uneasiness that makes us watch with shallow breaths as nature takes its course.

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Watch your back, capybara.

Photo by Laura Danin Redman

Given my affinity with those lovably overgrown rodents, I’m relieved that I don’t have to watch a jaguar drop a capybara. (I may be the only one in our group who doesn’t openly hope you’ll see the circle of life fade away.) The mother and the cub crept into the bush and we slowly follow them into the pocket, parallel to their soft padding. linear. Always curious, the cub keeps pushing its head up to look at us, then runs back into the clumps of trees. Mom, maybe she’s hungry or maybe just exhausted from caring for a young child all day, fumbling in the sun and rolling on her back. This is a universal mother’s signal for: I need a nap. The cub, unchecked, slithers onto its mother’s belly and begins to fall and play, with squished faces and a snort that closely mimics what dads and toddlers do, I’m starting to cry a little. Mother’s Day is tomorrow, and my kids, who are five and three years old, are probably rough and tumbling 4,400 miles north.

Visitors stand a 99 percent chance of seeing a cat in the reserve with Onçafari, our guide Bruno proudly tells us. But they can also see tapirs, toucans, ostrich-like birds called rais, capuchin monkeys, blue-clawed foxes, parrots, snakes and spiders (shivers). The Jabiru stork – the pantanal bird – drinks from a pond in the early morning sun. The area’s namesake caiman (a type of crocodile) also makes its presence known, its eyes glowing red at night by the hundreds, like an invasion of zombies.

Even better, visitors can participate in conservation campaigns, as we have done with Onçafari and the Arara Azul Institute, actively participating in their efforts and creating a lasting connection to the destination. I intend to return my family to the Pantanal one day; I planted a tree to house future parrots and I need to check their progress.

Know before you go

  • Heading there: Many airlines (Latin America, Delta, US) fly non-stop from New York-JFK to Sao Paulo. From there, it’s a short domestic flight via Brazilian low-cost airline Gol to Campo Grande. Caiman runs transfers from Campo Grande to the inn.
  • where to stay: Caiman ; Book now
  • Field guides: Unzavari. Blue Macau Institute

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